NBA Power Rankings: Nuggets rise to top spot; clutch-time analysis for each team – The Athletic

Zach HarperMar 12, 2024

A little over a month remains in the 2024-24 NBA regular season, so playoff races are getting super tight. Many clutch moments could influence matters as teams continue to try to make the postseason and position themselves for the deepest run possible.

Since crunchtime is a major factor in how this all plays out, I thought we’d look at the go-to clutch performers for each team this season — and someone who has struggled to come through in the clutch thus far. Are these teams set up for big moves when the game is close? (For those who need a refresher: The NBA defines clutch time as a game within five points in the final five minutes of the fourth quarter or overtime.)


We’ll do that before, as always, flawlessly ranking the 30 teams for the 21st straight week.

Reminder: The Power Rankings don’t just rank the 30 teams. We divide these teams into tiers, which teams can move in and out of. We currently have the tiers broken into seven new categories:

  • Incomprehensibly bad – These guys are historically inept right now.
  • Not tanking but maybe someday — They haven’t started tanking yet, but it’s on the table this season.
  • Looking to make the Play-In — They’ve been rebuilding/retooling and think they can crack the top 10 in their respective conference.
  • Play-In Tournament teams or better — They should be in the mix unless something disastrous happens.
  • Playoff teams — Probably don’t have to worry about dropping down to the Play-In Tournament.
  • On the brink of contention — A piece away from us believing they can win the title.
  • Contenders — They are contending for the championship, barring a massive injury.

As always, I am sure we will all agree on the placement of all 30 teams, especially your favorite team.

Here’s how the Power Rankings work:

  • It’s up to my discretion how the rankings shake out. For some teams, they’ll be hit in the short term. Others will be given the benefit for the long term. Yes, it is entirely subjective.
  • If I have a team ahead of another team, there’s no reason to ask why they’re ranked above the team you like. The answer is pretty simple: I think that team is set up better for success.
  • Yes, I watch the games. And yes, I watch your favorite team.
  • This is supposed to be fun, so let’s have fun.

With all that said, let’s dive into Week 21 of The Athletic’s NBA Power Rankings. Stats and records are through Monday’s action.

Conference Eastern WesternTier Tier 1 – The Contenders Tier 2 – Brink of Contention Tier 3 – Playoff Teams Tier 4 – Play-In Tournament Teams Or Better Tier 5 – Looking to make the Play-In Tier 6 – Not tanking yet but maybe someday Tier 7 – Incomprehensibly badExpand allCollapse allLoadingTry changing or resetting your filters to see more.Tier 1 – The Contenders1

Denver Nuggets

4Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Shai Gilgeous-Alexander | 98 points, 33-of-54 (61.1 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Lu Dort | 19 points, 5-of-18 (27.8 percent) FG

Here’s the messed up thing about trying to stop the Thunder in the clutch: Jalen Williams is also a killer. He’s scored 60 points on 20-of-30 shooting in the clutch this season while shooting 93 percent at the free-throw line. So, even if you manage to get the ball out of SGA’s hands or deny him, they have other guys on the court. Of course, Gilgeous-Alexander also will demoralize you, and he can do it with passing too (18 assists to four turnovers). Plus, Chet Holmgren has been great. You have to pray Dort or Josh Giddey get the ball in a hand grenade scenario.

Key StatsRecord45-19Offensive Rating119.1 (3rd)Defensive Rating111.3 (4th tied)Net Rating7.8Rank over timeWinsat Blazers128-120Heat107-100Grizzlies124-93WesternTier 1 – The Contenders3

Boston Celtics

6Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Kawhi Leonard | 78 points, 25-of-58 (43.1 percent) FG

Who has struggled? James Harden | 30 points, 8-of-20 (40.0 percent) FG

Norman Powell and Paul George have been great at converting in the clutch this year, but Kawhi is still the guy they go through. And his free-throw shooting (92.3 percent) means you can’t touch him at all. Kawhi is still one of the most feared one-on-one players, and the Clippers have the depth and offense to make you hesitate to double. Even though Harden got the nod for the struggling option, he still hasn’t been that bad because he’s been great distributing the ball. They just don’t have many clutch shortcomings.

Key StatsRecord41-22Offensive Rating119.0 (4th)Defensive Rating114.5 (14th)Net Rating4.5Rank over timeWinsat Rockets122-116Bulls112-102LossesBucks124-117WesternTier 1 – The Contenders5

Minnesota Timberwolves

11Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Brandon Ingram | 49 points, 18-of-42 (42.9 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Zion Williamson | 32 points, 13-of-27 (48.1 percent) FG

While Williamson has a higher field goal percentage, it’s a much lower volume of opportunities, and his free-throw shooting and playmaking have actually been subpar. He has more turnovers than assists while shooting just 6-of-13 from the line. However, he should be a great option outside of that because he gets so many good shots at the rim. Ingram’s efficiency isn’t super high, but he’s money inside the arc (51.6 percent). Both are scary options in a playoff scenario.

Key StatsRecord39-25Offensive Rating117.2 (8th)Defensive Rating111.7 (6th)Net Rating5.5Rank over timeWinsat Raptors139-98at Sixers103-95at Hawks116-103WesternTier 2 – Brink of Contention7

Phoenix Suns

7Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Donovan Mitchell | 78 points, 23-of-52 (44.2 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Darius Garland | 36 points, 8-of-32 (25.0 percent) FG

Even though he has a couple more turnovers than assists in the clutch, Mitchell has been pretty good when the Cavs need a big bucket in a tight game. His 3-point shooting, free-throw efficiency and ability to get to the rim have all been shining in clutch situations. If he can be this reliable in the playoffs, Cleveland will have a good run. Garland has been in and out of the lineup this season, but he’s really struggled to come through in the clutch. His free-throw shooting is the only thing holding up. This team needs to get healthy, though.

Key StatsRecord41-24Offensive Rating115.2 (16th)Defensive Rating111.0 (3rd)Net Rating4.2Rank over timeWinsCeltics105-104Wolves113-104 OTLossesat Hawks112-101Nets120-101Suns117-111EasternTier 2 – Brink of Contention9

Milwaukee Bucks

9Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Luka Dončić | 59 points, 18-of-39 (46.2 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Tim Hardaway Jr. | 25 points, 6-of-22 (27.3 percent) FG

The 1-2 combo of Dončić and Kyrie Irving is pretty difficult to contend with in late-game situations. Both have been incendiary this season and put opponents on their heels. Dončić has just been a much higher-volume playmaker in addition to the scoring, so he gets the nod there. Surprisingly, Hardaway has been awful at late-game shots. Opponents still fear his shot making, but they’d much rather it go to him than the two stars.

Key StatsRecord37-28Offensive Rating118.1 (6th)Defensive Rating116.9 (21st tied)Net Rating1.2Rank over timeWinsHeat114-108at Pistons142-124at Bulls127-92LossesPacers137-120WesternTier 3 – Playoff Teams11

Sacramento Kings

18Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Tyrese Haliburton | 73 points, 25-of-39 (64.1 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Aaron Nesmith | 26 points, 9-of-24 (37.5 percent) FG

It almost doesn’t make sense how good Haliburton has been in the clutch this season. It feels like he hasn’t missed a shot. He took over the Dame Time celebration in certain moments and made it from all over the floor. He’s been more reliable than is reasonable to expect. Even though Haliburton is struggling a bit lately, you expect him to deliver. Nesmith has had a good season, but not in crunchtime. He hasn’t made a clutch 3-pointer all season.

Key StatsRecord36-29Offensive Rating120.1 (2nd)Defensive Rating118.5 (25th)Net Rating1.6Rank over timeWinsat Mavs137-120at Magic111-97LossesWolves113-111EasternTier 3 – Playoff Teams13

Orlando Magic

15Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? LeBron James | 89 points, 33-of-61 (54.1 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Austin Reaves | 55 points, 13-of-33 (39.4 percent) FG

LeBron is still that guy when it comes to big moments. He’s been relentless most of the season. When he’s not taking a bad 3-point shot (26.1 percent), he’s attacking the basket and making it unfair for the defense. LeBron has surprisingly turned the ball over a lot, but he’s still been money. Reaves gets the struggle nod because he hasn’t shot the 3 well, and there just aren’t many other guys eligible. D’Angelo Russell and Anthony Davis have been great. Although, we should note that Reaves has been an excellent playmaker in the clutch.

Key StatsRecord36-30Offensive Rating115.0 (17th)Defensive Rating115.3 (16th tied)Net Rating-0.3Rank over timeWinsBucks123-122Wolves120-109LossesKings130-120WesternTier 3 – Playoff Teams15

New York Knicks

10Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Jimmy Butler | 52 points, 16-of-45 (35.6 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Tyler Herro | 31 points, 11-of-32 (34.4 percent) FG

Last season, the Heat were phenomenal in the clutch and carried that into the postseason. Miami hasn’t been that during this season, so the team could really use Butler being that guy again. He hasn’t been nearly as efficient. He does make some big defensive plays, but they need shot-making. Herro has more shot attempts than points, which isn’t ideal. He simply doesn’t get to the free-throw line much (only five attempts in the clutch this season). They need better execution in tight situations.

Key StatsRecord35-29Offensive Rating113.4 (21st)Defensive Rating112.7 (8th tied)Net Rating0.7Rank over timeWinsPistons118-110Lossesat Mavs114-108at Thunder107-100Wizards110-108EasternTier 4 – Play-In Tournament Teams Or Better17

Golden State Warriors

19Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? DeMar DeRozan | 147 points, 42-of-83 (50.6 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Nikola Vučević | 61 points, 22-of-54 (40.7 percent) FG

DeRozan is still pretty much unstoppable when the game is tight. Look at his unbelievable efficiency. He’s second in clutch points this season, only behind Curry. Nobody else is close to them. Everybody knows he’s getting the ball with Zach LaVine out, and he still cooks everybody. DeRozan has turned it over a lot, but you live with it. They haven’t had too many struggling options, so Vučević takes the hit here. His low percentage is mostly due to 3-point shots, which you should trust him to make.

Key StatsRecord31-34Offensive Rating113.2 (22nd)Defensive Rating115.3 (16th tied)Net Rating-2.1Rank over timeWinsat Jazz119-117at Warriors125-122Lossesat Clippers112-102Mavs127-92EasternTier 4 – Play-In Tournament Teams Or Better19

Philadelphia 76ers

20Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Alperen Şengün | 90 points, 32-of-63 (50.8 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Jabari Smith Jr. | 29 points, 10-of-24 (41.7 percent) FG

The Rockets know where to go when the game is on the line. Şengün is a bully in these situations. He puts his shoulder into you, knocks you off your position and gets a bucket inside the free-throw line. There’s not much you can do about it. His free-throw shooting (63.4 percent) is bad, but he’s still efficient at making shots. And Dillon Brooks has shot the ball well too. Smith gets the nod over Fred VanVleet, who has a similar field goal percentage, but the point guard has an 21:1 assist-to-turnover ratio in the clutch.

Key StatsRecord29-35Offensive Rating112.5 (24th)Defensive Rating112.4 (7th)Net Rating0.1Rank over timeWinsSpurs114-101at Blazers123-107at Kings112-104LossesClippers122-116WesternTier 5 – Looking to make the Play-In21

Atlanta Hawks

21Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Mikal Bridges | 102 points, 35-of-66 (53.0 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Cam Thomas | 34 points, 8-of-31 (25.8 percent) FG

Even though the Nets’ season has fallen apart, Bridges has still been ultra reliable when it comes to clutch moments. His 76.3 percent free-throw shooting could definitely be better, but he has a ton of free-throw attempts too. Bridges rarely turns it over and always gets to a good spot on the floor to find a shot. Surprisingly, Thomas has been terrible in the clutch. He’s not afraid to take shots, but he also doesn’t take the best shots. I still like a player like him who can create an attempt out of nothing.

Key StatsRecord26-39Offensive Rating113.7 (19th tied)Defensive Rating115.7 (19th)Net Rating-2.0Rank over timeWinsSixers112-107at Cavs120-101Lossesat Pistons118-112at Hornets110-99EasternTier 5 – Looking to make the Play-InTier 6 – Not tanking yet but maybe someday23

Utah Jazz

24Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Scottie Barnes | 73 points, 26-of-55 (47.3 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Immanuel Quickley | 29 points, 8-of-26 (30.8 percent) FG

Pascal Siakam and Dennis Schröder had plenty of clutch moments for the Raptors this season, and they were pretty good overall at it. However, Barnes has been the guy they’ve been steering to all season, and he’s pretty dynamic in the clutch. He shoots a good percentage, distributes the ball and makes plays. He just needs to be a better free-throw shooter (72 percent). Quickley has only been there a couple of months, and he’s really struggled, but he’s fearless and has a bright future of making big shots.

Key StatsRecord23-42Offensive Rating113.7 (19th tied)Defensive Rating117.6 (24th)Net Rating-3.9Rank over timeLossesPelicans139-98at Suns120-113at Blazers128-118 OTat Nuggets125-119EasternTier 6 – Not tanking yet but maybe somedayTier 7 – Incomprehensibly bad25

San Antonio Spurs

27Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Jaren Jackson Jr. | 62 points, 21-of-48 (43.8 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Desmond Bane | 32 points, 9-of-23 (39.1 percent) FG

Both options for the Grizzlies have done a great job at the free-throw line, which makes their field goal percentages easier to tolerate. They’re also not supposed to be in this role. It’s supposed to be Ja Morant. Jackson has done an admirable job, and Bane has been a bit disappointing in that respect. Even though the percentages are close, Jackson has double the volume. They both really miss having a playmaker to set them up. Vince Williams Jr. has also struggled but has a low amount of attempts.

Key StatsRecord22-43Offensive Rating106.9 (30th)Defensive Rating113.5 (11th)Net Rating-6.6Rank over timeLossesHawks99-92at Thunder124-93WesternTier 7 – Incomprehensibly bad27

Portland Trail Blazers

30Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Kyle Kuzma | 49 points, 19-of-55 (34.5 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Jordan Poole | 21 points, 7-of-24 (29.2 percent) FG

This is how bad the Wizards have been overall and in the clutch this season: Kuzma, with 49 points on 53 shot attempts, is the best option they’ve had. And it’s not particularly close. Everybody else is in that Poole range for effectiveness, in the rare event they even get to a crunchtime situation. I’m not even sure what to say when it comes to the Wizards anymore. I almost want to bring back the schtick I did years ago, when I just wrote about failed illusionists instead.

Key StatsRecord11-53Offensive Rating110.7 (26th)Defensive Rating119.5 (30th)Net Rating-8.8Rank over timeWinsHornets112-100at Heat110-108LossesMagic119-109EasternTier 7 – Incomprehensibly bad29

Detroit Pistons

29Last Rank

Who’s their clutch guy? Miles Bridges | 41 points, 13-of-25 (52.0 percent) FG

Who has struggled? Mark Williams | 18 points, 5-of-13 (38.5 percent) FG

This is pretty bleak, but it often is with the Hornets – who, by the way, just ruined our chance at the Wizards taking a 27-game losing streak into a matchup with the Pistons in a couple weeks. Most of the Hornets’ heavy options in the clutch aren’t there anymore. Terry Rozier still leads them in clutch points. Gordon Hayward and P.J. Washington were top six in clutch points for them too. Bridges has been pretty solid and even won them a game or two. They don’t have many bad options, which is why Mark Williams is included here. He’s solely around the hoop, so he has to finish those.

Key StatsRecord16-49Offensive Rating108.4 (29th)Defensive Rating118.9 (27th tied)Net Rating-10.5Rank over timeWinsNets110-99LossesMagic101-89at Wizards112-100at Pistons114-97EasternTier 7 – Incomprehensibly bad Get The Bounce, a daily NBA Newsletter from Zach Harper and Shams Charania, in your inbox every morning. Sign up here. (Photo: Ron Chenoy / USA Today )

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Zach Harper is a staff writer for The Athletic, covering the NBA. Zach joined The Athletic after covering the NBA for, CBS Sports and FRS Sports since 2009. He also hosts radio for SiriusXM NBA and SiriusXM Mad Dog Sports Radio. Follow Zach on Twitter @talkhoops